Timothy O’Brien’s obituary

Production designer Timothy O’Brien, who died of prostate cancer at the age of 93, was the latest in an extraordinary postwar generation of innovative and influential designers – Sean Kenny, John Bury, Ralph Koltai – who completely transformed the look of our theater today: they have replaced the pictorial and decorative theater of designers such as Oliver Messel, Leslie Hurry and Roger Furse, with raked (and bare) boxes, artifacts from art galleries and symbolic statues, new technologies, platforms and trucks , stone, wood and leather.

O’Brien designed the first production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964); the first London revival of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, also in 1964, with Nicol Williamson, with a real stone rock and a barely perceived tree (“My last tree was by Giacometti,” said the playwright); and the Covent Garden premiere of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden (1970), using a cord background and a powerfully projected image of the sun shining through a tall beech vault to bring the stage to life in the spirit of music.

Associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1965, he was involved in many of the greatest productions of the next 10 years: Marguerite Duras’ poetically sombre and grainy Days in the Trees (1966), starring a luminescent Peggy Ashcroft; a still unmatched John Barton production of Richard II (1973), Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating in the roles of the king and his usurper, Bolingbroke, the design perfectly reflecting that swinging maneuver of rise and fall; another shimmering forest in Gorky’s Summerfolk, revived by David Jones in 1974.

As Trevor Nunn noted, it was in musical theater – the West End and opera – that the wave of a new design ethos was most felt, never more than in O’Brien’s work with Tazeena Firth, the his second wife and design partner, and with Hal Prince, the director, in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (1978).

It was a crude and brilliant Brechtian staging, which used film and photography, a revolving door for very changing generals, processional and choreographic explosions on a dark stage, the fateful balcony of Casa Rosada for the large number Don’t Cry For Me , Argentina, structures with scaffolding and dazzling “white-outs” instead of black-outs at the end of the scenes.

O’Brien and Firth were now an established team, having worked together – equal responsibility on sets and costumes – on many RSC shows: a beautifully dressed Merchant of Venice with Emrys James and Judi Dench; George Etherege’s Restoration classic, A Man of Mode, with John Wood and Helen Mirren; a superb and gritty revival of the signature work of Barton, Troilus and Cressida; and a blatantly suburban Merry Wives of Windsor, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Brenda Bruce who shine in ruffles, heavily brocaded skirts and big hats.

In 1975, O’Brien was joint winner of the gold medal at the Prague Quadrennial. This was an important recognition for British theatrical design after years of being the second violin of Italian, French and Eastern European designers. He went on to complete an astonishing list of notable collaborations in UK theaters and opera houses around the world with eminent directors Elijah Moshinsky (over 16 years); Peter Hall (30 years old); Terry Hands (34 years old); and Barton (39, the first of whom was a Comedy of Errors student at Cambridge in 1949).

Another noteworthy contributor over the past 30 years has been Graham Vick, director of the Birmingham City Opera, which culminated in a cycle of the Ring in Lisbon in 2009. O’Brien never stopped working, completing, prior to the surgery. del Covid, a stunning production of Wagner’s Parsifal with Vick at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, in January 2020. O’Brien exploited the Roman architecture of that immense and timeless space with wells of medieval iconography, exposed lighting, half curtain Brechtian mobile for the changes of scene, and Amfortas, king of the knights of the Grail, similar to the naked body of the crucified Savior.

O’Brien was born in Shillong, India into a family of colonial administrators on his mother’s side and soldiers on his father’s side. Elinor, nee Mackenzie, met Brian Palliser Tieghe O’Brien in India; later, during the Second World War, he was an intelligence officer in the 8th Battalion of Gurkhas. Timothy, who wished to become a field marshal, was sent to Wellington College (1942-47) and sent to Austria.

Abandoning military ambitions, he went to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge (1949-52), where he reduced his studies and began designing plays. He won a Henry scholarship to Yale, the first guy of his kind to go there as a stage designer. He returned to Yale with a full portfolio of models and models, which he carried around the city in a large wooden box.

Michael Tippett’s Knot Garden, 1970. Photograph: Mike McKeown / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In confessing, he “got off” a job in the BBC’s television design department, thanks to a cousin who was then living with John Mills’ sister Annette, who manipulated a BBC puppet called Muffin the Mule. He continued as a designer in 1954 with the newly formed Commercial Independent Television Authority and collaborated with future director Richard Lester. He became head of design at ABC, where he designed 90 minutes of live entertainment, once a month, for the Armchair Theater.

In 1964, he was contributing to Shakespeare’s grand Quatercentennial Exposition in Stratford-upon-Avon, when he was invited to design Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court and then join Hall as an associate artist with the RSC. The following years of the RSC in Stratford and London (at Aldwych) were exciting times. In the 1969 season alone he designed three extraordinary Hands productions of Pericles (bare bottom soldiers in a white box with a tiled floor), Middleton’s lewd Women Beware Women (vertical furniture, a checkerboard floor) and a tumultuous Bartholomew Fair by Ben. Jonson.

Those RSC days of rich and rewarding repertoire, imaginative design and great acting are a thing of the past, although O’Brien remained tied to the company as an honorary member in 1988. Since 1974, he has drawn more at the National Theater, in particularly Hall’s great icy and moody version by John Gabriel Borkman of Ibsen with Ralph Richardson, Wendy Hiller and Ashcroft.

But his most radical design work was increasingly seen in the opera house: The Rake’s Progress at Covent Garden, directed by Moshinsky, paired an 18th-century semi-abstract chamber theater with realistic acquisition trophies; Puccini’s Turandot at the Vienna State Opera, directed by Hal Prince, featured a vengeful population in sequined masks and dresses (each sequin two inches in diameter) like tragic chameleons; and in György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre at the English National Opera, a world on the brink of destruction was conjured up with only a highway left above the urban debris.

O’Brien was a consummate draftsman, often producing a design directly on paper and translating the model directly on stage with few modifications. It was lightly built, self-contained, and quietly competitive. With civil engineer and designer Chris Wise he particularly enjoyed one of his later projects, the redevelopment of the garden of Shakespeare’s house, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

His older brother, Robin, a Cambridge blue in cricket and golf, died before him. Timothy himself was an above-average opening hitter who, at a conference at Dartington Hall in 2016, defined his purpose in life as “seeking the beautiful and the good in the service of a higher reality.” He was, as they said, un homme sérieux.

Her first marriage ended in divorce. Two daughters from his first marriage survive, Elisabetta and Caterina; and his third wife, set designer and interior designer Jenny Jones who, after training at Motley’s theater design school, acted as Timothy’s creative assistant for eight years before getting married in 1997. Together, they built a house and a new, freshwater house on the Isle of Wight.

• Timothy Brian O’Brien, production designer, born March 8, 1929; died on October 14, 2022

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